“Haru～help me out here.”
There’s a little more noise than usual on this day, after school.
Everyone on the corridor looked busy, hurrying around, getting caught in the hectic vibe around the campus. I too was about to be swallowed by this mood, and I was about to do something when someone called for me.
I stopped, turned to the voice, and saw the grinning face of my friend not too far away.
“Ah, good work, Takuma.”
The autumn wind seemed more winter-like compared to yesterday, swaying a little of Takuma’s bangs as it came through the window, which made him look cool for some reason. A few girls walking by had some burning looks towards him, and I wondered, did he notice them?
But Takuma went towards me, not glancing at them.
“What do you mean, help? Just move the materials somewhere?”
His hands were filled with some kind of material, so I asked.
“Why are you asking a question?”
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
“No, I got a bad feeling about this.”
“Guess I should flat out refuse.”
“You say that, but you’ll always help out in the end, Haru, so enough with the pointless questions, okay? Look, it’s a waste of time to argue. Just give up.”
This guy understood my personality so well, his voice was strangely brimming with confidence.
Takuma volunteered as a committee member for the success of our last culture festival in high school, so while he’s a prep student, he’s been busy running around all week. I saw his hard work, dedication and desire to make it a success up close.
I noticed the balance scales in my heart shaking, and I didn’t need to be sure of the final answer, for the friend before me had made the decision. As a little resistance, I sighed, and reached my hand forward.
“I guessed so. Thanks man.”
I received half of the materials from Takuma. I nearly let it drop as it’s heavier than I imagined, and panicked a little.
“Be careful. That’s not something we should be showing others.”
“Really? Where are we moving these anyway? The staff room?”
“No, the news club.”
“Wait, is this actually,”
Takuma’s clearly leering away. The ominous feeling became conviction.
And at the same time, this selfish me was beginning to speculate, mostly about school grades. If I did anything to affect my grades in the second trimester of my third year, there’s no turning back. The scales tilted greatly.
Of course, I was headed in the opposite direction.
“I’m going back.”
“Wait. To where?”
“To my own class. Ahh, got to help out with the exhibit.”
“Don’t worry. You’re excused from helping out with that. I told everyone in class.”
“Nn? What do you mean?”
“Basically, you don’t have to help out. You got something else to do.”
“You get it now, Haru? There’s nowhere for you to return.”
Seemed like Takuma had done some deal behind my back. I could only lament my own misfortune at this point.
“Damn it. Those traitors.”
Takuma gleefully slipped towards the clubroom building, and I could only glare at his back, tailing obediently and meekly. We went to the second level. The dark stairs were as serene as a water surface, and our footsteps were like ripples of the droplets landing upon the surface., ringing and dispersing.
Takuma reached the fourth level, narrowed his eyes at the commotion outside the window, and declared,
“Starting today, you’re going to be part of the committee running the news club’s pageant contest.”
I knew it.
Our third year, our last culture festival.
And the start of my suffering.
“Heh, a pageant? Sounds interesting.”
Yuki, walking next to me, muttered while drinking the iced tea from the PET bottle. It’s winter, and she’s called Yuki, which sounded like snow, but I could smell the sakura just by walking next to her.
The air’s very fresh on this day, and the autumn sky above us was orange, a little forlorn. Nights were longer, so the time I could spend walking with her was about to end.
The familiar journey of heading home from school had been the part of the day I was most looking forward to recently.
We spent so little time together, but her existence was starting to become so big within my heart.
“I want to say this isn’t fun at all, but I had fun during the first and second year, so I can’t say anything about it. It’s just that it’s troublesome to be the guy don=ing it.”
“Oh, I see, so you’re the type to rank girls happily, Yoshi-kun.”
“What’s with that out of a sudden? But well, anyone can refuse to be invited or recommended for this pageant contest. Those that really don’t want to do this can drop out beforehand.”
“Uhuhu. You don’t have to be hasty for excuses.”
“I’m not hasty. I’m not looking for excuses.”
Upon seeing Yuki’s grin, I realized I was had. Yuki had been saying it was interesting the entire time.
“You’re really mean, Yuki.”
“You’re not much different there, Yoshi-kun.”
She giggled. For some reason, she’s the one teasing me, saying I’m mean, but I didn’t feel bad about it. I guess it must be because her voice was as delightful as a bell.
She stretched her leg out in a childish manner, walking on. Her body was cutting apart the light, and there was a dark little feminine silhouette formed at her feet. The shadow’s face was pitch black as it imitated her, and its expression could not be seen, yet it looked so happy.
“Anyway, it’s rare to see a pageant in high school. Don’t they normally host it in college?”
“Ah, there’s a reason.”
Yuki bent over, looking up at me. My heart fluttered as her hair did. Goodness, my face’s hot, even though summer’s long over.
Yoshi-kun? She called my name. So I panicked and explained.
Why’s there a pageant contest in my high school? There’s a backstory to it. I wasn’t even born when it happened. Everything started 30 years ago.
As Yuki had said, a pageant’s typically organized in college, and our high school has it because of the passion of our seniors. As for why I knew about this, my dad’s one of the earliest involved, and he always mentioned this whenever he got drunk.
For hygiene reasons, they couldn’t organize anything related to food. And they couldn’t organize mazes or haunted houses as they did not fulfill the requirements of being a school activity. Exhibits had to be related to the town’s history or Greats. No jokes were allowed in their skits.
It seemed this was the kind of culture festival dad’s era had.
There were thirteen seniors (warriors), whose names would never be recorded in the history books, worried about leaving behind grey memories of their cultural festival, so they gathered in the now extremely old gym warehouse, yelling with their fists clenched.
“So you guys, are you going to let your last memories of high school be so mundane?”
One of them started off, and the others let loose their frustrations.
“Noooo! Th-this is just oppression!!!”
“I don’t care what we do. I just want to end things off with a bang.”
“Right, we can’t accept this. But what do we do? The teachers have an ace.”
“If we play our cards too obviously, we’ll get killed. There’s no way back if we make a mistake here.”
“Damn it. We’re completely powerless here.”
They might not have thought of doing something for real, probably just playing along. They were fine with venting their daily frustrations, or enjoying a little of the non-routine stuff. After some commotion, they would have returned to their daily routine.
But only one man amongst them was different. He was, simply put, really harboring ambitions,
“I have an idea.”
The chairperson of the news club raised his hand. He was a straightforward fellow with a strong sense of responsibility, but nobody knew why such a person was present. The other twelve exchanged looks, but they shook their heads. Did you call him here? No, I don’t know? Not you? No. Eh, then who?
Nobody actually voiced out, but the worries persisted. One person finally had enough of the tension, and asked,
“Ohh~ tell us then.”
The other eleven never voiced out, despite having the same thoughts themselves.
“So, everyone knows that our news club publishes a special edition during the culture festival.”
“Ahh, that boring thing?”
“You’ve seen it? That’s amazing. It’s all words and I fell asleep just looking at it.”
That man was nearly devastated by his comrades’ cruel words, but he stood firm. This was not the time for emotions.
“Ahem. So what I want to say is, why don’t we use that special edition for a pageant contest?”
“Simply put, a beauty contest of the elite girls in our high school. We just need to gather the contestants, whether they’re recommended, or volunteered. We’ll finish gathering the numbers three days before the culture festival, assign special codes for the students, and publish the results, but everything has to be done secretly. How about it? Are you willing to help me out?”
One had to wonder if it was a stroke of luck or misfortune, or that history was meant to be made. The thirteen gathered were all talents that could make this possible. There was the former student council president, along with the former presidents of the soccer, baseball, basketball and tennis clubs, the president of the literature club, a frivolous student who had vast connections, the genius who was ranked first in school, a person who somehow was highly adored by his juniors, a harem prince, a smart guy capable of such pranks, along with a genius capable of doing the boring stuff.
All they needed was motivation. Once that motivation was lit,
“Let’s do it.”
Nobody knew who said that, for the twelve present had the same thoughts.
Oh, let’s do this. Isn’t this fun? Such words and passion echoed, but nobody voiced out the most important reason.
Even if this was exposed, they could pin the blame on the news club president.
And at that moment, none of them thought they would have taken the first step of continuing this pageant contest that lasted so many years.
I told Yuki of the vague story I heard from dad, along with some exaggerated gestures, which cheered her up greatly. She seemed really curious about this story.
“Sounds nice. I guess this feels like youth after all.”
“I don’t think it’s something that amazing, but it might be to dad and everyone. He’s always delighted to mention this.”
“But I don’t think that’s something you’re good at, Yoshi-kun. Why are you helping out with this?”
“Look, I was betrayed. I got a friend called Akane, and I think she just wants to cause me trouble.”
I said with a tragic tone, and unexpectedly, Yuki blinked hard a few times, so I continued on, never noticing that I misunderstood the reason why she was so troubled.
“She’s Akane Rindou, probably the most famous person in our school. She’s from the swimming team, a hard worker. She participated in the nationals.
“Heh. I see.”
While we’re talking, Yuki’s eyes narrowed.
Eh, for some reason the mood changed completely. Yuki’s clearly smiling, but she didn’t seem like she was, since her eyes clearly weren’t.
For some reason, I felt fear. I didn’t know if it was just me, but there seemed to be an Asura behind Yuki’s back when she asked.
“Uh, huh. And then there’s another one called Mizuki Takehara-san.”
“I understand. I have some things to say, but do continue.”
I rubbed my eyes hard, but the Asura never vanished. Seemed like it got bigger. So I gulped, making a weird sound.
“Eh, erm, I’ll continue. That Takehara-san’s somewhat an idol of our school. Ever since we entered this school, she won the pageant contest twice. Akane’s the only one capable of being her rival, but she always refused to participate. Seemed like this year, she’s willing to participate as long as everyone can agree to a certain condition.”
Takuma and I paid a visit to the news clubroom.
Everything started without me knowing anything. It’s the first time I went to the clubroom, but my seat’s already there, and the juniors gave me kind looks as though they’re inviting freshmen. Some even gave me thumbs up, some winked at me. My peers who had yet to retire from the club were leering heinously.
I questioned Takuma with a stare, and Takuma finally blurted that as long as everyone could fulfill a condition, she’s willing to participate in the contest.
“The condition is that Haru (me), is to help out in the contest.”
It seemed that was the situation, so Takuma, as a committee member of the culture festival, was working his hardest to fulfill her request, and my classmates betrayed. After all, this would mean everyone could get to see the showdown between Akane and Takehara-san.
This pageant contest would be the liviest in recent years.
Soon after, Yuki, who had been listening quietly the entire time, finally spoke up,
“So, why did Akane-chan say such a thing?”
“I’m not too sure either. Takuma said it’s some kind of revenge.”
“How do you treat other girls anyway, Yoshi-kun?”
Yuki’s voice remained spiteful, and I ended up raising my pitch.
“Ah, no…that’s, well, Akane invited me out a few times, but I rejected them all. It’s not like I did anything special, just that I went alone. She probably hates this fact.”
Yuki tilted her head in confusion.
“…Rejected? Even though she’s a cute girl who could have won the pageant?”
I answered, and for some reason, “Really? I see. So you rejected her…”Yuki muttered happily.
“Goodness me, Yoshi-kun. You’re a hopeless me.”
And then she patted me on the shoulder.
“Erm, Yuki? You’re not angry?”
“Well, yeah. You just mentioned another girl to a girl here. You don’t understand a girl’s heart at all. But I forgive you since I’m hearing something that makes me happy.”
Eh? Did I say anything?
“So now I’ll show mercy and spare you this time. I too have some responsibility in this matter, so do your best and make this pageant contest a success. But there’s still something I can’t accept. What do I do now?”
“What is it?”
“Hmm~ Let’s leave it as a secret for now.”
Yuki grinned, baring her teeth as she placed her long index finger on her lips, making a hush.
Girls really are inscrutable.
“Ahh, thank you so much for helping us out, Haru-senpai. We’re really short of hands here.”
The second year Ookubo-kun was seated before the only computer in the news club. He mentioned ‘lack of hands’, but he certainly has two. Anyway, all I see were those two hands being idle, and the word document being completely blank. The cursor was blinking away, as though anxiously awaiting the input of words.
“Enough with the courtesy. We don’t have enough people, so do two people’s work.”
“Computer’s dead. It’s an old one. Looks like we’ll be waiting for another three minutes.”
“Wait for another three minutes? My foot. If you’re bored, do something else. Ah, hey, Minegishi-san, you dropped something.”
I called for my junior who had been scurrying around the club room, and picked up a very old photo book she dropped. Its cover was tanned beige, the title worn out, and It’s difficult to make out what the words were. It’s probably the name of this high school though.
“Ah, sorry. Thank you for picking this up. It’s careless of me to drop the secret recipe.”
“What secret recipe? Can I unleash a killer technique with that?”
“Not impossible, I might say.”
Not impossible? Now I’m a little curious. And once I looked towards the old notebook in my hand, she said,
“A killer technique might be hyperbole, but you can have a look if you’re interested.”
“It’s fine since you’re a member of the news club now,Segawa-senpai.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
I flipped the first page, and saw a photo that was heavily faded. On the photo was a really pretty girl, a feisty one it seemed. The shapes of the eyes and ears reminded me of someone, but it’s probably just me.
After all, I had no impression of the name ‘Asuka Mizumori’ under the first pageant contest winner. I flipped to the next page, and as expected, there’s another photo of a pretty girl.
“Yes, this is the photo album of the past pageant contests. It’s passed down the news club for generations. Duplicating or taking it out is forbidden, and non-members need permission to look at it. This book is really valuable, and there was once a riot because of this. Takehara-san’s phot is on the last page. It’s amazing that she managed to win twice. If she repeats, that’s unprecedented..”
I closed the book firmly, and returned it to Minegishi-san, who seemed proud of it for some reason.
“Better keep this dangerous item properly. Anyway, have you obtained the class lists?”
“Yes. They filled in their names and votes.”
“There’ll be trouble if there’s a mistake, so check through and make sure each class’ vote is easy to classify. Ookubo-kun, help me out here.”
“It’ll be great if we can finish by today. I’ll deliver the rest to the class reps tomorrow.”
“Eh? We can’t have you work so hard for us.”
“Right, we decided. If the teachers spot us, it’ll be easier to pass it off as me delivering to the various classes. I’m on good terms with the committee after all, so I can say I’m doing errands for them. Please continue to take care of me.”
I gave brief instructions to the junior who was brazenly attempting to slack, and the junior who was trying to finish something beyond her capabilities, before returning to my assigned seat. The current president of the news club Tanabe barged into the clubroom. There were thick black rings beneath his eyes, and his face seemed skinner, or was it just me?
Once he say me, he made a zombie-like sound.
“Haru, how’s the preparations for the ‘special column’ to be given to the teachers?”
“We got the third year committee members to help out. Guess we’ll reuse the theme from four years ago? Hmmm…exhibit highlights, the classes to look out for. Deadline’s today, so we should b be able to collect it today.”
“Ah, Segawa-senpai, classes C and E have replied. They’re on my table.”
Minegishi-san notified me without looking up from the name list.
“Guess that’s that, Tanabe. Sorry, you mind checking through the drafts?”
“Can you please stop pushing work onto me?”
“I can’t be reading that draft though. I’m just here to help.”
I looked towards the materials in my hand. If these weren’t handled immediately, the table would be chock full of paper. I’m in charge of checking the typos, while Tanabe’s in charge of designing the cover. So I shoved everything beyond my job scope to Tanabe, who looked really annoyed by this, but he pretended not to notice. He let my behavior slide, since he knew it was pointless to yap away. He wasn’t going to kick up a fuss as long as I didn’t greet him.
The documents on the table were finally whittling down in numbers, and I could finally see the cream color of the table. I heaved a sigh of relief, and stared at the whiteboard with the schedule written on it. There’s an ‘interview with Akane Rindou at 1730’ under my name. Basically, the pamphlets promoting the upcoming interviews would be the voting paper..
I saw the schedule dozens of times on this day, but obviously, no matter how many times I looked at it, the plans on it would never disappear.
“Hm? You better do it. Someone nominated you.”
The friend frowning away was marking the document with a red pen, and blocked my retreat completely before I could discuss whatever was on my mind.
“But seriously…it’s a little embarrassing to be interviewing a friend.”
“Stop being picky. If Princess Akane’s fans are to hear those words, they’ll slaughter you. You’re here because this is the condition for her participating in this pageant contest.”
“So do your job.” Tanabe glared at the pile of neverending documents. “This is my responsibility, and that’s yours. Get it?”
He’s about ten times busier than me, and I couldn’t say anything to that. It’s time I will myself into doing this. I took a large sigh, but the voice never reached anyone, for everyone else was bsy dealing with their duties and responsibilities..
I couldn’t be the only one shirking my responsibility.
“Alright, I’m heading out.”
“Yeah, see you later.”
I took the voice recorder and foolscap, and with my friend’s words nudging me on, I left the clubroom. This room’s still noisy after school despite the doors being closed, and it’s a lot more comfortable than I initially thought.
The interview place was an empty classroom in the clubroom building.
With a creak, I opened the door, and found two tables facing each other in the classroom. Akane was seated on a chair. She was scowling, looking really unhappy.
“Sorry to make you wait.”
She tersely responded, her hand on her sidelong face. She wasn’t looking at me. I was concerned, thinking this really wasn’t like her, so I sat at the empty seat, and called for her again,
Her response remained aloof.
But I couldn’t just waste my time here, so I just slapped the papers on the table to get her attention. Akane didn’t look at me though, and then I noticed that her face was red. Was she—
“Akane, are you nervous?”
“What, can’t I?”
“Ah, not that you can’t, just that…”
Akane finally turned towards me, her eyes filled with some murderous intent.
“You’re already used to giving interviews, aren’t you?”
Akane Rindou was the hero of this high school; actually, the town. She had a very attractive face, was cheery as a sun, and had the talent to enter the Nationals swimming competition, along with the hard work allowing her to reach that level. She had many such student interviews, and even appeared in the town promotional posters. Why’s she feeling nervous though?
“Grrr…I’m kinda used to it, but I’m not used to being interviewed by you though.”
Akane tapped her fingers on the table,
“You’re saying something ridiculous. Anyway, you’re the one who wanted me to interview you.”
“Well, yeah, that’s true. Haru, has anyone said you don’t understand a girl’s heart?”
Just days ago, Yuki said the same thing to me. I had some self-awareness, but it’s pretty boring to be told the same things over and over again.
“Y-you’re annoying. Anyway, that has nothing to do with this now.”
“It matters a whole lot, you idiot, big idiot. Whatever, let’s start.”
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. With this going on, I pressed the switch of the recorder, and there was some static.
The orange sunset shone through the window, dyeing our flanks red.
“So, ahem, Akane Rindou-san, please state your reason for participating in the pageant contest, and also some words to promote yourself.”
“Yeah. Everyone gets about ten lines, so please summarize as much as you can.”
“Just to ask, Haru, why do you think I’m participating in this contest?”
“Seriously, how would I know? I won’t have to interview you if I do.”
“There’s something I want.”
“Hmmm, that’s a secret for now.”
“I can’t interview you like this, you know?”
“Let’s end it then.”
Akane stood up from the table, leaned forth, and reached for the recorder, stopping it. There was silence, and it was only at this point that I realized I was alone with a girl, and starting to feel a little tense. I gulped, the sound emphasizing how nervous I was.
“You…you haven’t said anything to everyone though.”
Akane, whose face I was already used to seeing, looked a little different from usual. It’s definitely due to the nice sunset shining on her.
“Well, you can write whatever’s appropriate. I’ll do my best, or please support me. Hey, more importantly, there’s something I want to ask. Who did you vote for last year, Haru? I guess it’s Mizuki?”
“Y-yeah. I voted for Takehara-san. Eh, it doesn’t matter who I vote for. I guess the safest choice is to vote for the most popular, right?”
I was ashamed of the last words I spoke of. To whom was I trying to give excuses to?
“Oh, I see. What about this year?”
“Who are you voting for this year?”
Akane took a step closer. Whose loud heartbeat was that? Mine or hers? I scanned the room, and then met Akane in the eyes. It felt like it’s been a long time since this happened. Her eyes, nose and lips were within reach. At the same time, we realized that we were too close to each other.
We were so close that if one side had wanted to, we could have touched.
And Akane made a hasty retreat.
“Woah. S-sorry for saying something weird. Please forget about it.”
She hurried turned away, shriveling and groaning as she covered her face. She’s acting a little weird today, and so was I. Why was my heart beating so fast? The minute hand of the round clock hanging on the wall continued to tick. 1 minute, 2, 3. Time wouldn’t stop; it would only continue on. Surely the two of us were the only ones remaining still in this world.
The silence caused our hearts to race.
The first to lose the contest of patience was Akane.
“An-an-an-anyway, Haru, you know the real reason why this pageant contest started?”
“Re-re-re-real reason? Sorta. M-my dad was part of it.”
Our conversation was extremely awkward, clumsy actors reading from a fixed script, it felt like. Ah, but even so, whatever we said, the rusted gears began to click together, running as normal. It seemed this conversation was a nice lubricant.
“Heh~I see. My dad was the same. But the reason you know of might be a little different from the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“The one who proposed the pageant contest was the president of the news club. Do you know? My mom told me that my dad’s that president, so I as the daughter know that a stupid, gaudy boy came up with an unsurprising mischief, along with all his courage, to get a certain thing. I want that thing too..”
“What’s going on? Mind explaining in simpler terms?”
“You said so much already. Of course I’m curious.”
Akane got up from the chair, and reached her hand out towards the sky turning dark. The sunset shone through the gap, raining upon her face, dampening it. She narrowed her eyes, as though pondering.
“Well, I guess. I’ll tell you the rest later, once I win.”
She muttered, still looking away from me.
I walked down the corridor once the interview ended. No, actually, I didn’t get to interview her. My mind was relieved from the tension, and I continued to think about Akane’s demeanor, words, and the true backstory of the pageant contest, but I never got the answer. At this point, I didn’t know how to deal with these feelings.
Before I knew it, I had returned to the clubroom. Like usual, I opened the door, and greeted everyone.
But for some reason, it was Takuma, not the news club members, who welcomed me. He was lying on the red sofa, reading the manga that was left years ago in the clubroom.
“What are you doing here?”
“Delivering the drafts. Isn’t the deadline today?”
In response to Takuma’s words, Tanabe waved a piece of paper.
“And your reason for reading manga?”
“I’m resting, resting. Anyway, Haru, sorry about this, but mind keeping quiet for a while?”
“I’m getting to the exciting part. Will be done in 5 minutes..”
“Get out there and work.”
“Don’t say that man, this Takuma-senpai’s overworked..”
For some reason, the one coaxing me was Ookubo-kun. Argh, my head heads.
“Why is Takuma the more esteemed?”
“The difference in verbal etiquette?”
Only then did I realize it was pointless to talk to Takuma, who was humming away, so I ignored him, left the recorder and the blank new foolscap on the table. “Haru-senpai, the photos are done.” I praised the two juniors who were clearly clamoring for my approval, and finally wiped off my name’s name off the whiteboard.
Takuma spent exactly 5 minutes reading the manga, and got up, looking a little satisfied.
“About what? A happy end in that manga?”
“That’s one. Another is that you’re finally getting to work. I was actually worried, since I dragged you into this. Ah, sorry.”
While talking, Takuma’s pocket shook. He took out a smartphone from it.
“You can’t bring that to school.”
“Don’t be so rigid, man. It’s just for the culture festival. I can’t give other people instructions without this. Eh, what?”
At that moment, his face froze, and the mood got tense. Everyone sensed this with their skins, their attention gathered upon him.
“What is it?”
“Looks like news reached that Kozato. She’s heading here.”
I didn’t know how it was like back then, but most of the teachers were quietly okay with this. Some of the teachers were already alumni to begin with, and the special cover was well disguised. If any problem occurs, the contest’s over, but we’re working hard to ensure this wouldn’t happen.
It’s just that some of the teachers wouldn’t allow for this to happen.
Kozato-sensei was one of those teachers. She had just joined our high school, was a serious one, and her lessons were easy to understand, but she’s a little too inflexible, so most students couldn’t handle her.
“I don’t know. All I know is that Kozato’s in the south block. She’ll be here in 5 minutes.”
I looked over at the votes on the table in a panic. Those were the results of Minegishi-san’s hard work. There’s also 80% of the voting collated in the hard disk of the computer.
Takuma acted decisively.
“Stuff the votes into the cardboard boxes, and drop them down the balcony to the photography club. As for the computer…”
Ookubo-kun raised a hand apologetically.
“Sorry, it’s lagging.”
“Now of all times? You got to be kidding. Whatever, pull the plug.”
“B-but, we may lose data here.”
“Did you save a backup?”
“Don’t say that so proudly man. Ahh whatever.”
Takuma cussed, and grabbed me somewhat anxiously.
“Haru, go stop Kozato.”
“She got a good impression of you, right? Just buy us 5 minutes. We’ll figure out something.”
They were beginning to move before they stopped talking. Takuma was calling someone on the phone, but he was still staring at me.
I tried to formulate a plan in my mind.
First, I would bump into Kozato-sensei, and then I would talk to her. We’ll talk about my future prospects, or lessons. Ah, no good. I couldn’t imagine myself delaying her for a minute. Time continued to pass, but everyone else was trying their best to fulfill their objective.
Takuma was looking really anxious, but he was giving me a look I had never seen before. That expression was clearly saying—
You’ll always help out in the end, Haru, so enough with the pointless questions, okay? Look, it’s a waste of time to argue. Just give up.
This was the ridiculous amount of trust from the friend who understood my personality really well.
So I ran. All I could do was run.
To fulfill the mission given by my friend.
I ran down the corridor, and down the stairs. Since she’s coming from the south block, she would be passing through the link bridge on the second floor. I ran from the 4th floor to the 3rd, jumping seven steps down. BAM, it sounded like an explosion, and I continued to the 2nd floor while riding on this momentum.
As expected, my target was there. She’s an outstanding beauty, but the eyes behind the glasses were sharp, harsh looking even. She noticed me, and chided me with that authoritative voices.
“Hey Segawa, stop running on the corridor.”
I managed to get her attention, as I had wished for, but the most important part was after. I had a plan to misdirect her, but I didn’t think I would succeed. Without a backup plan, I could only charge on.
So I slowed down before Kozato-sensei, tilting forward a little unnaturally, putting my hand on my tummy as though there was something hidden within my school uniform.
“W-wait, where are you rushing to?”
“Your tummy hurts?”
I deliberately raised my voice. Come on, doubt me already. Just doubt that I’m running from the news clubroom and hiding something. Once she doubted me, I could have naturally answered, and then I could buy some time.
“Really? Sorry about that. Hurry on..”
“But do not run down the corridor.”
The completely flawed strategy naturally failed.
And worse, I was rebuked nicely because of her kindness.
“What? Hurry on.”
Argh, my mind’s completely blank. I couldn’t think of anything. At this moment.
Someone else was running down the same corridor as I did. It’s Ookubo-kun, slouching with his arms covering his stomach.
And once he saw us, or Kozato-sensei, he stopped and tried to run away. That simple move was the difference between him (success) and me (failure).
“Ookubo, hold still. Where are you going?”
“…What are you hiding?”
“Nothing at all.”
Unfolding before my eyes was a scene I had imagined.
“Besides, isn’t Haru-senpai running on the corridor? I saw that.”
“Segawa’s having a tummyache.”
“I’m running to the toilet too.”
“I’m not. I’m really going to the toilet. You trust Haru-senpai, and not me?”
“That’s because you skipped 5 classes with this trick!!”
Kozato-sensei’s bellow echoed through the corridor, which nearly shook the clubroom block entirely. However, Ookubo-kun wasn’t rattled. What he did next was really impressive. He looked dumb, and anxious, and finally said deflatedly, having bought the five minutes I needed.
“Actually, I heard there’s an actress at the front gates.”
“Well, I’m not sure if that’s real. They say she’s a real beauty, and like, there’s a crowd at the school gates. I need to get the scoop as a news club member, right?”
And then, he pulled out a mini digital camera from his uniform, which basically hinted at it being his last move.
“Haa…I’ll go over then. Can’t let the commotion slide. Go back to the clubroom now, Ookubo. I’ll head over soon. Don’t try to run away.”
Kozato-sensei left us behind and went off. It seemed she had forgotten all about me. Once that authoritative silhouette vanished, I lowered my head to Ookubo-kun as thanks.
“Thank for the great help.”
I alone wasn’t able to slow her down for 30 seconds.
“What about the computer?”
“It recovered soon, and we got a backup. I think we’re about done transferring the boxes, so I’m here to help.”
“We’re really lucky. At first, we’re trying to figure out how to create some big news to lure Kozato-sensei over, then we got intel of a super cute girl standing at the front gates. So we wanted to make use of that. There should be at least 30 people there now, since Takuma-senpai’s stoking the flames. Argh, it drives me mad. I want to look to. Heard that she’s super duper cute, even Rindou-senpai and Takehara-senpai are inferior to her.”
It was then that I noticed something.
I had a bad feeling.
I had a really bad feeling. There’s still a long time until our next meeting, but ever since I met her, she has always been waiting for me at the school gates. Most importantly, there’s one person I knew who’s prettier than Akane.
“Where are you going? Eh? To the toilet? For real?”
My junior loudly asked a completely off base question, and I ignored it.
I ran downstairs several times faster than I did, darted by the shoe cabinet, and arrived at the main gate.
Just as I heard, Takuma was riling the students in a circle. Kozato-sensei had not arrived. She must have been walking.
“Please excuse me. Sorry, excuse me.”
I forced my way through the crowd, and bumped into a few shoulders and elbows, even getting scolded. It hurts, but that’s nothing. There’s something else more hurting.
That’s my chest. The pain’s driving me forward.
Over there was,
“Ah, Yoshi-kun, say, what’s going on? Did I do anything wrong?”
Yuki was looking flustered to the point of tears.
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Before Kozato-sensei could arrive, I led Yuki out from the school, and stopped at a nearby family restaurant. She was seated on the chair, the book in her hands as she covered her face with it the entire time.
“This is unforgivable.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“I said I won’t forgive you. That shocked me. I was suddenly surrounded, and everyone was looking so scary. Never thought it’s your fault. This is unbelievable.”
Her voice was shaking, but I couldn’t sense any anger. It was all fear, shame, and helplessness. It would be a lot better for me if she was outraged instead.
“Well Yuki, I just apologized.”
She might not have seen it, but I had my head lowered, my forehead on the table.
The surrounding adults might have thought we’re having an argument. The restaurant’s really rowdy, but my ears distinctively picked up on the voices nitpicking us. 99% of them…eh, let’s face the facts. All of them were talking about me.
“That bastard made such a cute girl cry. If it had been me—”
What could you have done if it was you? Would you not have hurt Yuki if it was you instead?
I could have ignored everything else, but this line was the one that really hurt my heart. Time was the only thing moving on
My head was lowered the entire time.
“…I want parfait.”
I frantically lifted my head. I was not mistaken. It was Yuki’s voice.
I didn’t know of the expression she made, but I was glad that she at least made a compromise, so I grabbed onto the chance she gave me. I immediately called for the waiter, and ordered parfait and self-service drinks.
After 5 minutes or so, the waiter served us strawberry parfait. Finally, she put down the book. Her pretty little face was red all over, nose, cheeks, eyes.
“I was really scared.”
“I’m sorry. I really am.”
Yuki scowled again, and while being so emotional, she attempted to swallow the parfait whole or so while bringing it to her mouth. She eked a voice from her throat, saying it’s delicious, and then…
“I want some red tea.”
“Got it. Hot? Or iced?”
As she wished, I ordered some tea for her, along with cake, and coaxed her for another 20 minutes.
“I’m really sorry, Yuki.”
Again, I lowered my head in apology to calm her down. She sniveled softly, and finally nodded.
“Alright, I forgive you.”
I heaved a sigh of relief after hearing these words, but just for a moment. “But” as Yuki moved her red lips again,
“You have to make me a promise.”
“I’m all ears.”
She stared at me right in the eyes, nodded, and stated her wish,
“Write my name in that vote for the pageant contest.”
“What do you mean?”
“What else? Exactly that.”
“No, Yuki, you aren’t a student of our school. It’s pointless for me to do that. That vote will be invalid.”
“No, it really be.”
Yuki whispered, as though she was mentioning something important.
“I hope that for your vote, you won’t write Akane-chan’s name, or Mizuki-chan’s name, but my name. That’s enough. This will be a vote more valuable than hundreds and thousands of them.”
“Ehh, I don’t get what’s the point of that, but since you say so, I promise you.”
Yeah. If it’s what Yuki wish for, I’m going to fulfill it no matter what it is.
“I’ll write your name on. It’s nothing big anyway.”
“It’s a deal then. I’m going to ignore you if you lie to me..”
Yuki’s eyes were still a little damp as she glared at me.
I didn’t know how to respond to this, so I finally said something really unimportant.
“Ah, speaking of which, that bookmark’s pretty cute.”
There’s a bookmark clasped between the pages we were looking at.
“Cute? This paper is plain though.”
“No, eh…yeah, the pink’s nice. You see, it’s pretty, looks like sakura.”
Ah, why am I saying this? See, isn’t Yuki all startled now, At this moment, my thoughts stopped, for Yuki was beaming really happily.
It’s the first time she showed me a smile on this day.
“Thanks. Yeah, this is really pretty, but this isn’t actually a bookmark—”
And then, she said,
“This is actually my ‘wish’.”
Results wise, the culture festival was really successful, the pageant contest far beyond expectations. Akane alone had 40% of the votes, and won overwhelmingly.
Under the distant autumn skies, I aimed the digital single-lens reflex camera hidden by the photography club at Akane. I had to take her photo, for as the winner of the pageant contest, her photo was to be recorded in the annals. Beyond the lens, Akane reached her hand for the reddened leaves, took one of them, and brought it to her mouth, covering it.
“I think this happened before.”
She grinned, and I couldn’t resist the urge to click the shutter. The sound echoed, and an instance in this world only I know of was taken.
“Did you take a photo of that?”
“I haven’t made a pose.”
For some reason, she didn’t sound as energetic as usual.
“You don’t have to make one.”
The photography club acquaintance I knew of looked as though I had just murdered his father. When he lent me this digital SLR camera, he taught me a trick, to keep clicking on the shutter. Listen Haru, I’m not going to teach you any shutter, focus or lighting techniques. This camera will automatically deal with those troublesome bits. Your job is to talk to Rindou-san, get her to relax, and keep shooting. I don’t care if you take hundreds or thousands of them. Even as an amateur, you might get a miraculous shot.
Now this wasn’t difficult.
Another instance was recorded.
“Ah, you took another one.”
“This is my last job after all.”
Beyond the lens, I saw Akane’s anxious, perturbed, angry and pouting faces, turning each and every one of them into data (memories).
“I told you not to take anymore. Make sure I’m cuter if you want to.”
“Don’t worry, you’re always cute.”
I nonchalantly answered as I kept taking photos.
The entire world of photos taken─
“Wh-whawhawhawhawhat are you saying?”
“Well, if you aren’t, you wouldn’t have won the pageant contest.”
She was redder than the leaf in her hand.
“Ah, I see. I guess so. Otherwise you would have…”
“Don’t worry, I feel the same.”
The face was filled with shock and unbridled joy.
And for every snap on the shutter, Akane got increasingly charming. And thus I knew that at this moment, my index finger on the shutter would capture the prettiest photo I could get of Akane.”
“I see. Fufu. I’m glad.”
As expected, the girl before me showed a smile I never saw before. The warm smile was filled with such bliss.
After the shooting ended, Akane snatche the camera, wanting to check the photos. After ten minutes or so, she returned the camera to me, and the many photos from before had been reduced to two.
One of those was the red leaf covering her mouth. And the other was her smile (best shot).
“You don’t need the others now, right? Use the photo with the red leaf for the photo album. Take print two shots of this smile and delete it. Don’t show it to anyone else.”
“…A reward for this hardworking Haru. Akane-chan’s very kind, so one for her, and one for you. Rejoice. This is the photo of the most popular girl in school.”
Once she quickly said these words, she skipped forward, as though hiding her expression from me. She spun on the spot, letting her skirt dance with the leaves. Her hair was a little longer than it was in the summer, and it swayed along too. The eyes staring intently at me were the only unfaltering ones. Soon after, Akane said,
“Ah, yeah. Got to fulfill that promise.”
She, buried in the sea of red, restarted the topic we discussed about,
“A long time ago, about 30 years back, there was a timid boy. He had a one-sided crush on the prettiest, most famous girl in the year, but he dared not talk to her, let alone confess.”
She continued to walk backwards while facing me. In this quiet place, her voice remained undisturbed, clearly reaching me.
“Before they knew it, they entered the third year. The only events left for autumn were the culture festival and the exams. Back then, he had a thought, that he wanted to leave a memory of this crush. He came up with a loose plan, but finally got it to work, and got the outcome he wanted. He asked that girl to leave him a memory of the champion. You know the rest, don’t you?”
I looked at the camera in my hands.
There was the photo of the prettiest girl of our year, no, the whole school. The face was reminiscent of the prettiest girl on the first page in the secret book. The shape of the ears were the same.
“So, Akane, your mom’s Mizumori?”
“This contest started because my dad wanted my mom’s photo. They treasure the photo very much even at this age. Leaving dad aside, this photo is the most important thing to mom,”
Was that the desired thing Akane spoke of?
“You realized it? Yeah, I wanted this photo. Mom looks happy whenever she speaks of this, and even I start to feel embarrassed.”
“You should be looking for someone with better skills, right? I’m an amateur.”
“Nope. Nobody else with better skills can take it any better. It’s a photo only one person in this world can take, and that’s you, Haru.”
“Seriously, I’ll be embarrassed to be praised like that. So I have some talent in photography.”
“You idiot, this isn’t what I mean. But I really got to thank you. Now for my last activity in high school, I have a memory on par with mom and dad. I want to share a memory with you. It’s great for you to have my photo.”
Saying that, Akane turned her back on me again, not hearing my response.
And then, as though she had thought of something, she asked with her back still turned on me.
“Say, Haru. Did you vote for Mizuki again this time?”
“Eh? No, I didn’t vote for her.”
“Really. That’s fine then.”
She proceeded to skip forth. She looked a lot happier, even swaying side to side as she walked.
I had a feeling she seemed to be mistaken about something. And because of that, I did not try to explain further—
My vote went neither to Takehara-san, nor to Akane,
Why did I cast a blank vote? Where did that vote go?
After school, in late autumn, I met the girl whose name I wrote on that white paper.
And so, that peerless beauty came to us, bringing us to our last winter together.